Barbara Payton was one Hollywood star who fell hard

Saturday , June 07, 2014 - 1:00 PM

Doug Gibson

I saw this movie many years ago, titled “Bride of the Gorilla.” I love cult films and the reason I saw the film was because Lon Chaney Jr. was in it. But I never forget this film mainly due to the female star. Her name was Barbara Payton and she was incredibly attractive; Marilyn Monroe attractive, with strong screen presence.

Of Barbara Payton, though, I didn’t hear much more. Her film career ended in the late middle 50s and she died before she was 40.

I love classic cinema, vintage cinema, cult films, so I eventually decided to learn what in the heck happened to Payton.I got a copy of the biography, “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story,” (Bear Manor Media), by John O’Dowd (here). What I learned stunned me. Barbara Payton spent the last several years of her life in a hell created by herself. From about 1960 on she became a prostitute on the streets of Hollywood, eventually turning tricks in the worst slum hotels for $5.

It’s a horrifying story of a starlet — who was earning several thousand dollars a week in the early 1950s — reduced to conditions we would not wish on our worst enemies. Payton, in the early and mid 1950s was a sort of Paris Hilton on steroids. She engaged in gossipy, rabidly covered violent relationships with actor socialite Franchet Tone and B-movie tough guy actor Tom Neal. When Neal savagely beat Tone one evening, Payton’s Hollywood star dimmed. When a married Payton left Tone for the violent Neal, her star was nearly extinguished.

Payton eventually left Neal, and began a more bohemian, poorer existence, spending some time in Mexico, another time in a roach-infested apartment with Vampira, another star whose light had dimmed, as a neighbor. She kept her looks, and survived another ill-advised marriage, and attempted one last comeback in 1959. It went nowhere; not even her friend Raymond Burr, who Payton had helped several years earlier, could get her a role on his show “Perry Mason.” There was no redemption for female Hollywood stars who had angered the Hedda Hoppers, Louella Parsons, who enforced the faux morality of Hollywood, which was -- misbehave, but do it quietly. There were also no B- or C- list reality shows for Payton to at least receive money to enable her problems.

In short, Payton, who likely had mental and emotional issues that were exacerbated by alcoholism, occasional drug abuse and deep self loathing (O’Dowd presented evidence that she was likely sexually abused as a teen), sunk into the gutter in a frighteningly fast manner. I don’t think a legitimate star (Payton had starred with James Cagney in the Hollywood hit “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye) today could sink this fast. A more likely scenario today would be for a troubled star to die of an overdose, still relatively wealthy. Payton became just another drug-addicted derelict in skid row Los Angeles. It has all the gory details of Payton’s pitiful fall here, although O’Dowd claims he left out a lot more. It’s a well-researched book and serves its purpose as a cautionary tale. The biography, by the way, may one day be a movie.

In 1963, she was conned into helping publish an ”autobiography,“ ”I Am Not Ashamed,“ which was virtually ignored by the mainstream. It was sold by low-rent gossip mag professionals, serialized in men’s magazines, with photos of a delusional Payton that are still hard to look at today. As mentioned, one theme of the Payton biography is the cruelty and faux holiness of the gossip industry of that era. It was far more lethal than today’s press.

Payton eventually made headlines once more as a live person when she was discovered unconscious outside a drug store market in Los Angeles. After a stay in the hospital, she was essentially sent to her parents’ home to die. And she did die several weeks later, in San Diego. Roughly 15 years of hard, ruinous living had destroyed her liver, her heart and her brain. As we read the book, we almost cry out for Payton’s family to help her in the final years of her life. They claim they tried, and they probably did.

When an addict goes into a permanent dive, it’s a hideous thing to watch. Payton was so talented, and so beautiful, that her story is a uniquely American tragedy tale.

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